Manners and Metapsychology
By Frank A. Gerbode, M.D.
[Ed. Note: the following article is the plenary address of Sarge Gerbode delivered at August 3rd at the 2007 Technical Symposium held this year in Ann Arbor, MI. While not typical of the interactive nature of the Symposium, the address provided interesting grist for the mill of discussions at the annual event.]
It’s perhaps a bit presumptuous of me to talk about manners, when I don’t think of myself as being terribly polite. I’m sure I could benefit greatly from a careful and thorough reading of Emily Post. That doesn’t mean I don’t know that I should have good manners, however. You can also chide me for talking about manners, when there are so many other seemingly more important things to talk about¾so much suffering in the world, so great a need for enlightenment, but I hope by the end of this talk, you will see things differently.
I have to say that I used to have a bad¾not to say rude¾attitude to manners. I thought of them as trivial, pretentious or worse. I scorned such things as Emily Post; I didn’t want to be well-mannered, if that meant being a slave to social convention. I also thought of manners as something people use to gain or assert social status, or simply to look good in others’ eyes. I saw them as shallow, dishonest and, at best, a waste of time. Also, I resented having to learn them as a child: keep your elbows off the table; stand up when a lady enters the room; make sure you wear clothes appropriate to the occasion. And worst of all¾having to write those terrible, insincere thank you notes at Christmastime, which almost made Christmas not worth it to me (but not quite).
In harboring this attitude, apart from indulging in a rather prolonged period of adolescent rebelliousness, I was also operating from a confusion between mores and true manners, which, in fact, are only tangentially related to each other. Mores are social conventions, familiar behavioral patterns that differ from society to society. If you are in a society but don’t follow its mores, you will stand out as an oddball and tend to be socially ostracized. Nerds, geeks, etc., fall into this category. As an adolescent, I made little effort to follow social mores, dress codes, making polite conversation, etc., because I didn’t think there was really any hope of being one of the popular kids, so why go to the trouble? I don’t regret that¾I met other geeks, and we got along fine. My error was in confuting such things with manners, and that was because I did not really have any clear conception of what manners were.
Are manners truly socially relative? Some things that are regarded as manners seem to be. In the Inuit culture, it is said that burping is a sign of appreciation of the food, and a polite host offers his wife to his guest. I used to be a member of the Clean Plate Club, but apparently in China it is considered rude, because cleaning your plate shows that you think you were not served enough food. And these mores can change over time. It used to be considered rude to begin eating before one’s host or hostess, but apparently Emily Post has revised this rule to say it’s now OK, because otherwise the food might get cold. All of this still seems terribly arbitrary and meaningless to me, but then it has to do with mores, not manners.
Several years ago¾in 1990, in fact¾my life changed when I became aware of the distinction between mores and manners. I wrote my thoughts at the time as JOM Article 68 “Universal Etiquette”. Some of what I am talking about here is contained in that article. I discovered that real manners are not culturally bound or arbitrary, but relate to basic needs that all people have in common. The most basic need that people have, in my opinion, is for communion with others: communication, comprehension and affection. Manners are nothing more than the best way of creating a safe space in which these needs can be met. Does this begin to sound familiar? In fact, what I realized was that the Rules of Facilitation and Communication Exercises are not just technical matters that enable facilitation to happen, but principles of human interaction that can apply to any interpersonal situation, in or out of session, and that result in creating an optimum atmosphere for human interaction.
Let us take a brief romp through the Rules of Facilitation and see how they can be rewritten to be more broadly applied.
- Do not interpret for the viewer →
Do not interpret for people.
If you really want to get in trouble with people, start giving them psychological interpretations or imputing hidden motives or agendas to them. Just say something like, “You are behaving just like your mother,” or “You are just saying that to hurt me.” As in sessions, it doesn’t matter whether or not the interpretations are true. There is a basic sense that making them is a violation of the other’s space. In fact, even assuming a therapeutic stance with another person is a violation, if the other person has not agreed to having that sort of interaction.
- Do not evaluate for the viewer →
Do not evaluate for people.
This is called not being judgmental. Following this rule does a great deal to create a safe social space. Even if a person evaluates him/herself, it is rude to agree with that evaluation. If you do, the person is unlikely to favor you with any further confidences. And, as in facilitation, even when your evaluation is positive, you can create bad effects. If someone tells me something they did that they think is really rotten, and I say, “I don’t think that is so bad,” the result for the other person might be a sense of relief, but ultimately s/he may resent my having rendered a judgment at all. Or s/he may, to a degree, become dependent on my reassurances. Or both. If you are truly a friend, you will not encourage such dependencies or invite such resentment. So, stay with his/her viewpoint and accept his/her evaluations as true for him/her. Even receiving praise can feel tainted by the fact that the person praising you may be putting themselves in a one-up position by doing so. There is a part of me that resents receiving any sort of personal judgment from another person. It is better to tell the person how you feel about what they have accomplished and how it meets your needs.
In certain instances, you might have to disagree with someone, but if so you will still fare better by labeling your judgment as your opinion (and thus as a statement about you rather than about “objective reality”). Putting it in that way doesn’t lessen your opportunity to adduce evidence and reasoning to support your point of view. You are merely offering the other person another reality s/he might choose to accept, rather than jamming it down his/her throat. You are more likely to win with this approach because the other person is less likely to resist your point of view when he sees that you are not trying to force it on him.
When I disagree with someone, I also take the attitude that I may learn something that will alter my position. With this attitude, the discussion becomes more useful than if I take the attitude that I only have something to teach. The other person will be more likely to change his reality when he sees that I am willing to change mine. We have both “ante’d up”, so to speak, so we are both equally committed to the game, and there’s a sort of fairness in that, which the other person senses. Under these circumstances, being wrong can be as much of a win as being right. If I am right, I have the glory and the pleasure of teaching my viewpoint to another. If I am wrong, I have the pleasure of learning something and thus having a stronger viewpoint in the future. It’s almost as if I consume the other person’s viewpoint, incorporate it, and am nourished by it.
A philosophical principle coined the “Principle of Charity” by Neil L. Wilson enters into the picture here. If someone says something to you that seems totally nonsensical or blatantly false, it is wise to adopt a “charitable” attitude about it. Assume that there is something you don’t understand¾and you will be right! People rarely make utterances which to them are false or meaningless. Their utterances make sense to them. Before you wantonly invalidate the other person’s statement, then, apply the Principle of Charity and assume that there is something you simply don’t understand. Admit that to the person as a problem you have, and try to get a clarification. When you do so, either the other person will clarify something for him/herself in the course of trying to explain it to you, or you will discover your own point of misunderstanding. In either case, the result will be a success for both of you.
- Do not reveal or use anything the viewer says to you in a session for any purpose except to enhance the process of viewing. →
Do not reveal or use anything people say to you in confidence for any purpose except for those agreed upon by them.
If you apply this rule and keep your agreements, you will be regarded as discreet and will gain people’s confidence. If you don’t, you will tend to be shunned.
- Control the session and take complete responsibility for it without dominating or overwhelming the viewer →
Take full responsibility for situations involving other people.
In a session, this was taking full responsibility for the session, but it applies universally. Here, we are talking about multi-determinism. But that doesn’t mean taking responsibility away from others. Events do not just have one cause; they are multiply determined. Just because one person is fully responsible for a situation doesn’t mean the other people involved in the situation are not also fully responsible. It isn’t as though responsibility can or should be divided up “fifty-fifty”. Each side ideally takes 100% responsibility. The best strategy, then, is to personally take full responsibility for any situation¾while at the same time allowing (but not forcing) others to take full responsibility as well. If they don’t want to take any responsibility, you still take full responsibility yourself. That, of course, gives you much more control over the situation, so things are likely to go the way you want them to go.
The purpose of assigning responsibility (causativeness) to something or someone is to find a control point, a point from which a desirable change can be made. If you assign causation to yourself, then you locate a control point in yourself and thus you become a point from which the situation can be controlled. If you disenfranchise yourself by assigning away responsibility, you become a “victim of circumstances” and control lies elsewhere¾or nowhere.
Suppose your partner fails to show up for a dinner date. You were there on time, so it’s his fault, right? If you take that viewpoint, the result is likely to be a deterioration in your relationship rather than a resolution of the situation. Instead, look at what you might have done to avoid this situation. Perhaps you should have been clearer or more emphatic in making the appointment. Perhaps you failed to notice that the other person was preoccupied. Or perhaps, knowing that the other person was forgetful, you could have reminded him/her and you didn’t. One or all of these may be the case, and had you acted differently, a different outcome would have ensued. Once you have assumed full responsibility, you can discuss with him/her how you might have acted differently, not from a viewpoint of guilt or self-blame but just in an objective manner. In all likelihood, s/he will reciprocate by taking responsibility for his/her side of the situation, and then things will get solved in a smooth way.
The worst case (and, unfortunately, the most common one) is where each party assigns all responsibility to the other and none to self. Each regards him/herself as the victim in the situation. This is called “other-determinism”, and is the lowest level of responsibility. The result is ill feeling, rather than a resolution. The same sort of situation is likely to recur repeatedly, forming a chain of traumatic incidents for both, because neither is willing to assume responsibility long enough to do something about it.
- Make sure that you comprehend what the viewer is saying. →
Make sure you comprehend what people are saying to you.
People know it when you get distracted and don’t really follow them, even if you acknowledge and pretend to understand. A failure to comprehend is a basic violation of the Communion Triad and is a direct blow to any relationship. The Principle of Charity mentioned above is really a restatement of this point: don’t dismiss the other person’s point of view; comprehend it. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with it. You can still express your own opinion, so long as you label it as such.
- Be interested in the words and person of the viewer, instead of being interesting to him/her. →
Be interested in other people; don’t try to be interesting to them.
This principle works just as well in social or work situations as in viewing sessions. The interest itself creates a safe space, as well as putting you in a causative position. And the other person will see you as a wonderful, caring person. Your interest is a huge gift you can give another person.
- You must have a firm and primary intention to help the viewer. →
Always include an intention to help in your dealings with others.
This is really a restatement of Kant’s famous moral principle: “Always treat people as ends, not merely as means.” If you consistently adopt the attitude of helping others achieve their goals, as well as trying to achieve your own, you are likely to be successful in your relationships with others. The fact is that what people are trying to achieve is, by definition, their own intentions. You must speak to those intentions if you want the kind of cooperative atmosphere that a good relationship requires.
- Make sure that the viewer is in optimum physical condition for the viewing session. →
In your dealings with people, take into account their physical and mental condition.
You don’t want to try to get someone to handle something physically, emotionally, or mentally challenging when they are sleep-deprived, ill, or stressed out. That is why it is rude to call people late at night. They need their “down time” to themselves. Also, if you want to talk about something emotionally charged with your partner, it is best to wait for a time when s/he is feeling well-rested, rather than to indulge in late-night brickbat sessions. If need be, make an appointment to discuss the issue at a more suitable time.
- Make sure that the session is being given in a suitable space and at a suitable time. →
Make sure that interactions you have with people occur in a suitable space and at a suitable time.
It is counter-productive, and rude, to fail to take into account possible distractions or temporal considerations that could impede the kind of interaction you want to have. It is rude, for instance, to buttonhole people when they are rushing off somewhere or to talk about embarrassing subjects in public. Also, if your person or your place is messy or smelly, that is also unmannered, not because of its effect on your status but simply because, for many people, it requires effort to tolerate such an environment.
- Act in a predictable way so as not to surprise the viewer. →
Act in a predictable way so as not to surprise or disappoint people.
This means keep your promises and try to work out a set of policies that enable the other person to know what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. This is especially important with children, but it applies to anyone. It’s unfair and rude to keep changing the rules on people. Much of Emily Post’s compendium of social rules, in fact, is simply a way of producing a safe, controlled, predictable environment. That is the aspect of mores that aligns with manners. But you will inevitably make up your own rules. The point is, once you have agreed-upon rules, keep to them.
Obviously there are exceptions, such as arranging pleasant surprises like parties and presents, but these are few.
- Never try to work with someone against that person’s will or in the presence of any protest. →
Do not try to force people to do things against their will or override their protest.
What applies to viewing also applies to life in general. You can’t actually force someone to do something they don’t intend to do anyway. All you can do is to persuade them or give them sufficient incentive to do things. And it is far better to give people positive incentives than negative ones. The best approach, when encountering protest, is to back off and make an effort to comprehend the viewpoint from which the other person is protesting. First, allow the other person to protest without penalizing him for doing so. Often, that is all you have to do. When the protest has been freely expressed, it often vanishes if it is based on emotional charge. If it isn’t based on charge, you can then proceed to a rational discussion of the real reasons behind the protest, deal with them effectively, and reach an agreement.
It is wonderful to have high purposes and to seek to create a large, positive effect on the world. But regardless of the nobility of one’s purpose, I question whether it is acceptable to ride roughshod over others on the way to fulfilling it. You could take the viewpoint that getting the job done is more important than being nice about it. You could think that it is all right to interrupt, to invalidate, to break promises, to use force and duress, to impose your belief system on others, and, in general, to frustrate others’ needs, so long as your purpose is high enough. In other words, you could believe that the ends justify the means. But I am not a proponent of that approach to life. Most of the major atrocities that have occurred in history have been done in the name of a high purpose. For Hitler, the needs of the Jews were insignificant compared to the need to preserve the purity of the Aryan race. In totalitarian states in general, the needs of the individual are sacrificed to the benefit of the society at large, however that might be defined (for the rulers of a society, that often seems to be defined as their own needs). My whole purpose in founding AMI was to create the possibility of empowering individuals and the belief that, given the freedom to do so, people will act for the benefit of self and others. I don’t feel comfortable about using means that go directly against this basic principle.
In fact, violations of the principles of universal etiquette outlined above are usually, if not always, based on our own reactive, counter-survival impulses, although we have tried to justify them by claiming¾and even believing¾that they are in furtherance of a higher cause. It should be entirely possible to be effective and have good manners at the same time.
Furthermore, we can know the immediate consequences that our actions have for self and others, but we cannot know with the same clarity what the long-term consequences might be. If we know, then, that we are acting in violation of the above principles and will be creating pain, annoyance, and upsets for others, but hope thereby to be creating a better long-term result, is this really a rational way of behaving? I believe it is not. As I will explain below, we can be effective without being ill-mannered.
- Do not do anything in a session that is not directly conducive to the viewing process. →
Stay focused on the activity in which you are engaged.
If that activity happens to be mere socializing, then so be it. Don’t introduce business considerations into the middle of a social conversation. It is very rude to invite someone to a party and then to try to sell them a car¾or Tupperware. Likewise, it is tedious to work with someone who keeps distracting you with social chitchat when you are trying to get a job done.
- Carry each viewing action to a success for the viewer. →
Let people complete cycles they start with you.
That includes acknowledging them so that their communication cycles will be complete, not interrupting them when they are saying something, not abruptly changing the subject, not monopolizing a conversation, and not engaging in “flooding”, that s, a monologue that drowns out all other communication. Flooding is rude because it leaves your companions with incomplete communication cycles of their own that have built up during your monologue: questions, disagreements, topics of their own that they want to talk about. Further, a one-way communication of this kind prevents the recipient from absorbing and integrating the information being poured out, hence leaving him/her with an incomplete learning cycle. Interrupting someone when s/he is about to complete a cycle of any kind is frustrating and rude. If you let the other person complete his/her cycles, the chances are that he will extend the same courtesy to you.
In addition to the Rules of Facilitation, all the Communication Exercises (CEs) apply to life as well as to viewing sessions and hence form part of universal etiquette. I have already mentioned acknowledgments. Failing to answer letters, to reply to invitations, or to send thank-you notes are violations of CE-5. But other essential ingredients to universal etiquette are:
- Being present with other people (CE-1).
- Paying attention to other people (CE-2).
- Not reacting with negative emotion to others’ communications or actions (CE-3).
- Communicating directly, clearly, and sincerely with others (CE-4).
- Encouraging others to communicate (CE-6).
- Patiently persisting, when necessary, in getting your cycles completed (CE-7) without interrupting the other person’s cycles.
- Skillfully handling others’ concerns (CE-8).
Violation of the CE’s constitutes rudeness in any culture. Applying these principles to life, however, is considerably more difficult than applying them in session. A viewing session is strictly structured and the session time is deliberately compartmentalized from the rest of life for the express purpose of making it relatively easy to follow these rules. You don’t have to actually live with the client, nor to interact in a situation where needs are likely to conflict. Presumably, your needs and those of the client coincide. You are there to help the client, and the client is there for you to help him/her.
Outside of viewing sessions, however, and especially in personal relationships, our needs are more varied and sometimes conflicting, and our actions and those of others may have serious survival or anti-survival consequences. It is consequently harder to maintain good manners, as defined above, outside of a session, especially with intimates. You are by definition, closely connected to your intimate friends and family and therefore they can have an enormous impact on your well-being. In his play, No Exit, Sartre pointed out the negative aspect of this in his infamous statement, “Hell is other people.” Things that wouldn’t matter so much with strangers have a huge impact with intimates, because you can’t just walk away from them and do something else. It is not surprising, then, that so many people avoid intimacy. Intimacy can be scary because it is at times painful and difficult.
Another problem with intimate relationships is that intimates have a past history with each other that can easily get restimulated.
The powerful need we all share for communion with others raises the stakes in our intimate relationships and thus leads to very strong positive or negative emotions, depending on how things are going.
We are already familiar with some ways of resolving these out-of-session problems. One approach is viewing to reduce the restimulation factor, to address the tendency to make each other wrong, etc. Another is Schema Work, which can help to resolve conflicting needs.
But the great anthropologist and polymath, Gregory Bateson, had a useful way of looking at interpersonal situations. He made the point that in every communication made to another person, apart from its literal content, there is a “metacommunication”, which is what the communication and its method of phrasing and delivery says about the relationship between the two people. Manners, then, can be regarded as skillful management of such metacommunications. Saying something in a polite, respectful way defines the relationship in a positive way, where rudeness defines it negatively. Thus, when we find ourselves rushing to judgment and about to do something rude, it is time to step back and take a good look at what is going on with us.
One of the best approaches to managing metacommunication is Marshall Rosenberg’s “Non-Violent Communication”. I don’t have time, here, to go into Rosenberg’s work in any great detail. Though doing so would be highly rewarding, it would probably take days to cover the material adequately. I will just fasten on one point that Rosenberg makes, which is that each time you feel compelled to evaluate or interpret for another, you can look into yourself and understand that urge as what Rosenberg calls “a tragic expression of an unmet need.” It’s tragic because it is an attempt to achieve something good, but in a destructive and ineffective way. In each case, you can achieve a better result by contacting in yourself the frustrated need and sharing it with the other person. In other words, you can rephrase your judgment about the other person as a non judgmental statement about yourself. Then it does not constitute a violation of the above principles, and incidentally is far more likely to be effective in meeting your needs, as well as the other person’s. If someone does something you don’t like, instead of telling them that they are insensitive, selfish, crazy, or stupid, you can instead say, “When you [statement of the precise action in the physical universe that the other person did], I felt [statement of your feeling as a feeling, not a judgment], because I needed [statement of your need as a statement about yourself], and I would now like you to [request for a do-able physical universe action on the other person’s part].” When couples fight, though they may seem to be expressing hate toward each other, the real situation is usually that they have a strong and frustrated need for love from each other. If they can actually express this need to each other clearly and non-judgmentally, the ground is laid for a resolution and restoration of communion. If you can truly apply this approach every time you are about to blow it with someone, you relationships with others will improve dramatically.
Maintaining good manners at all times, as defined above, is a life-long discipline, and a difficult one. But doing so betokens enlightened self-interest, in view of the fact that the rewards for having good manners are great, since the result can be a major improvement in communion with your intimates and thus the fulfillment of the most basic of needs.
One more point needs to be made that’s even closer to home: what about being polite to yourself? When I was studying Rosenberg, I discovered that I was the person I was rudest to. Breaches of the above rules came thick and fast in my dealings with myself. But I was also the one person I could never escape from, so the result was a lot of pain in my relationship with myself. The fact is that the person you need to have the best manners with is yourself! You need to apply all of the above rules to yourself: You need to take care of your physical condition. You need to cease invalidating yourself.
Strangely, you also need to cease interpreting for yourself. Of course, during facilitation or otherwise, you can discover things about yourself, have insights, etc., and all that is wonderful. But there is a big difference between that kind of personal growth and the kind of intellectual but not heartfelt interpretations that we can sometimes impose on ourselves when we buy into some theory or other but fail to feel it as a lived truth. That kind of over-intellectualizing is a violation of the rule against interpretation on the reflexive flow. (See JOM Article 78 “Insight vs. Rationalization”)
What about validating yourself? That would seem to be a good thing, but then people think it is a good thing to validate others, e.g., clients, and we have seen that that is not the case. The subject of self-validation has to do with the topic of self-esteem that I have covered elsewhere (in JOM Article 83, “Self-Respect and Identity”). In my view, self-esteem is overrated. You can actually become dependent on validating yourself. There is a difference between celebrating a success or being aware of an ability you have and patting yourself on the shoulder to make yourself feel better, often at the expense of someone else. That’s called “arrogance” or a “superiority complex”, a topic covered at length by the famous psychologist and student of Freud, Alfred Adler.
Paradoxically, the best stance to take with respect to self and others is a completely non-judgmental one, in which you do not see right and wrong but only fulfilled and unfulfilled needs.
For the last half of my life, I have been asserting, with Carl Rogers, that people are basically good. But to be completely accurate, that insight has to be re-phrased. Truthfully, people are actually above such judgments. That is why it can seem vaguely insulting to receive even a positive judgment about oneself. If someone tells me I am a good person, some part of me resents the fact that the other person is arrogating to him/herself the right to make such a judgment and thus placing him/herself above me. If I tell myself I am a good person, it still seems wrong. I need to translate my statement that people are basically good into what I really mean, that people share the same high-level intentions, however misguidedly they may pursue them at times. We all ultimately value the same things: understanding, enjoying, and bringing order into our physical environment and creating communion¾affection, communication, and comprehension¾in our interpersonal one.
My viewpoint on manners has thus been turned on its head. From originally confusing manners with mores and regarding them as trivial or worse, I have moved to considering them the most important thing in life, in that they are the cornerstone of living a happy and fulfilled life.
 See http://www.tir.org/metapsy/jom/068_manners.html
 For more background, see www.cnvc.org